Activist, writer Shaun King gives historical context to modern social justice movement

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It’s been a few weeks since I conducted this interview, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to listen to writer, social justice activist and educator Shaun King speak live at the University of Michigan.

In his address to a sold-out venue, King addressed the fallacies that surround the idea that humans become better at humanity as time goes on.

He countered that idea with the notion that technology gets better and that people often think that coincides with people becoming better humans, and he did it in a way that was mostly apolitical and in a way that resonated with people on both sides of the political spectrum.

The address is available here if you’re interested in watching:

My interview with King was about his then-upcoming address to U-M for its MLK Jr. celebration. In our conversation, King talked about why he likes engaging students on college campuses, what activism means to him and he also took the time to clear up some misconceptions about the public’s perception of him as an activist.

Me: You speak at colleges and universities pretty regularly. What are some of the challenges and opportunities that present themselves when addressing crowds of 18–24 year olds who are often very outspoken when it comes to issues of social and political injustice?
Shaun King: I speak at 4–5 colleges a month, every month of the year. The biggest challenge of speaking to today’s college students is that because they are already so incredibly informed, it can be difficult to tell them something they don’t already know. What I try to do is bring what they already know together, and give it historical context. Less than I see it as a challenge, I see it as an opportunity. Young people, throughout history, have always been the lifeblood of every movement for civil and human rights. When I speak to them, I am honored. I know that in my midst are the next leaders who will change the world and make it a better place.

Me: Specifically regarding your talk here at U-M, what do you plan on speaking about? How will it tie into Dr. King’s visions?
King: I am a historian by training. I will be trying to give where we are in 2017 some historical context. We have made a lot of assumptions about 2017, and about our future as a nation, that I think have been proven false. We thought we had progressed much more than we really have. What the past few years have taught us is that we are up against problems just as big as what Dr. King was up against. Some of them are different, but they are just as challenging, and sometimes, even more challenging and systemic and deeply rooted.

Me: You weighed in on a police report out of Ann Arbor that surfaced just after the election where a woman claimed she was threatened to be lit on fire if she didn’t take off her hijab. In the last few weeks, Ann Arbor police have said that the woman’s claims are unfounded and they’re considering prosecuting her for filing a false police report. How hard do things of that nature make it for you and others involved in social justice work? Do you ever struggle with whether or not you should comment on certain incidents? 
: The United States is one of the largest countries in the world. Mental health is a real issue here and our country does a terrible job dealing with depression and various other mental health conditions. I have no idea why in the world anyone would ever make a false report of any crime, but reports like that, however rare, are bound to happen. It does not make anybody’s job easier, mine or even that of law enforcement, when they are sent down rabbit holes for false reports. However, we estimate that nearly 99% of reports on hate crimes are accurate. We refuse to allow the 1% that aren’t distract us from the hundreds and hundreds that are.

I read your piece about why you wouldn’t be fighting for justice for the Chicago teen. I thought it really hit the nail on the head. Subsequently, though, you received death threats, character attacks and, to put it lightly, negative criticism. Have these kinds of responses become normal to you or is it just as alarming every time it happens? I mean, I have a wife and four children and I know how protective I can be given the feedback I garner from my small platform. How do you manage and what is your family’s response to it all? I tried to really speak from my heart on that piece. I started, right out of the gate in that article, saying how much compassion I had for what happened to that young man. It was terrible. But what I said then has proven to be true. He wouldn’t need much help fighting for justice. As expected, everybody involved has been arrested, bail has been denied, and they have all been charged with multiple felonies. My point was to say that our country has thousands of case where no such justice has taken place, and I chose to use my limited energy to fight for those cars. When I began receiving so many death threats and insults in the wake of my article, I wasn’t surprised, though. I hate that this is our reality, but we live in an ugly and violent culture. I work hard to protect my family from the ugliness of it all. They don’t see most of the negativity.

Me: What motivates you to continue to do the work you do? 
King: A few things motivate me the most. Privately, I fight for what I fight for because I think my faith compels me to stand up against injustice. I also do a lot of what I do because I want to see a better world for my own 5 children. I wish I could work myself out of a job, but injustice continues to happen in this country every single day. While we may be exhausted, each person and family that experiences injustice, they need us to stand up and fight a fresh fight.

Me: Your past isn’t without controversy. Whether it’s the resurfacing of questions regarding your race or people thinking you’re in this fight for the wrong reasons, how do you manage to continuously shake those negative images and lies that are thrown your way?
King: I am able to fight back, first and foremost, because the truth is on my side. I’m not old, but I’m not a kid anymore either. I’m 37. Never once have I lied about my race a day in my life. Conservatives concocted these lies because they saw me fighting against injustice and saw that it was effective. The same is true for the lies they tell about me stealing money from families affected by police brutality. Not once have I ever received a single penny of the money I raised for victims of police brutality or for anyone in this movement for that matter. I’ve raised nearly $5 million over the past two years and have not received a single dime of the money I raised for people or charities. But we live in an age where lies spread quickly — and the people who spread them are no longer held accountable. It’s a wild time. I’m just going to keep doing what I do.

Me: What advice would you give to someone on a local level who wants to make a difference in their social climate? How does someone get involved?
King: I have three things I tell people. 1. Decide if you are going to become an insider or an outsider. Both are essential, but you can’t quite do both. The paths for both are very different, but both are very important. 2. Zero in on a particular issue that you want to change and go out of your way to make change happen on that. We often, out of necessity, get spread too thin, but you must focus in on specific issues you want to change. 3. This goes back to my first point, but consider running for office yourself.

Me: What’s the biggest misconception about Shaun King?
King: Probably that I am an angry person. While I am furious about injustice, I do what I do, fighting against it, out of a place of love. I love our people. I fight against police brutality not because I hate police, but because I love our people. I fight against racism and bigotry, because I care about the people who are experiencing it. I was a pastor for nearly 15 years. When people meet me or hear me in person, they quickly learn that I am much more than a tweet and a profile picture.